OCEAN CITY — In a room filled with local business leaders, public representatives and policy makers, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) led a roundtable discussion on tourism as it relates to Ocean City and the surrounding area.
Everything from immigration to health care to transportation was addressed, with Cardin’s final promise being that the government recognizes the importance of tourism on the Eastern Shore and that protecting it will be a priority in the years ahead.
Hosted at Harrison’s Harbor Watch Restaurant Thursday, the roundtable focused on how far tourism reaches and the best way to nurture it on the Eastern Shore.
“In the very heart of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, tourism is big business and that means good jobs in Maryland year-round and seasonally. I am proud to work alongside the effective public-private partnerships that are protecting and growing our hospitality and tourism industry, Maryland’s 10th largest private sector employer,” said Cardin. “I am committed to ensuring that the federal government is fully energized to support future growth of Maryland’s rising hospitality and tourism industry through all means possible.”
The first issue the roundtable brought up was transportation. The malfunction of the Route 50 Bridge into Ocean City in late July was mentioned. Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out that the resort managed the crisis with inconvenience but no injuries. However, he hopes that the state will make transportation to and from the city a priority.
Transportation as it relates to tourism is high on everyone’s list, said Cardin. The senator would like to see the six-year re-authorization of Service Transportation as the first step in protecting area roads and bridges. He is also highly in favor of fostering combined public and private partnerships to develop transportation infrastructure.
Immigration was another hot topic as it relates to Ocean City tourism. Much of the industry is supported by foreign workers, usually students, who head across seas to the resort every year. Immigration policies are far from perfect today, Cardin admitted, especially when it comes to making it easy and simple for those workers to obtain visas. G. Hale Harrison of the Harrison Group, owner of several hotels and restaurants in Ocean City, recounted some of his own experiences as an employer of hundreds of foreign workers over the years.
Many of the workers are so impressed by the area that they would like to stay, according to Harrison, but are not able to achieve long-term residency, despite having skillsets and training that would benefit the economy if they were allowed to immigrate.
“Most of them aren’t able to do it. Most of them have to go back home … they’re really the people that we should want to immigrate to the U.S,” Harrison said.
Cardin agreed and added that the attitude in the country seems to be changing to favor smart immigration reform, though not as fast as it could be.
Alongside immigration, health care was also much vetted. The national Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made a few business and hospitality leaders nervous on the shore. Cardin was told horror stories of employers being slammed by new costs and complications following the implementation of ACA.
It’s affecting the health care industry as well, according to Michael Franklin, President and CEO of Atlantic General Hospital. He told Cardin that high-deductible health care plans like many of those associated with ACA put hospitals at risk by weakening their ability to get the money that they are owed by patients.
“We don’t have a mortgage on your gull bladder. We can’t put it back in once we’ve taken it out. We have a limited ability to collect and people ignore it,” Franklin said.
A proponent of ACA, Cardin defended the overall plan while admitting that in many ways there is still room for improvement. Prior to ACA, he labeled America’s health care situation “a mess” that has since improved but still needs work. There are many parts of ACA that he believes will see a lot of review in the future. In any case where employers feel like they’re being discouraged to provide insurance to employees because of altered costs, Cardin was adamant that it is a priority to change that.
“That’s a tragedy, that’s a mistake and it needs to be fixed,” he said.
The final big topic examined was beach health, particularly the dredging of area waterways. Such dredging is vital to the health of Ocean City’s water and the activities associated with it such as sports fishing. However, fishing isn’t currently a priority indicator for the Army Corps of Engineers to perform a dredging project, something Cardin said is worth re-considering.
While kinks remain in perfecting tourism and protecting it, Cardin ended the roundtable with a commitment to advocate for the industry, which supports more than 130,000 direct jobs with a payroll of more than $4.7 billion across the state, much of that on the Eastern Shore.
“Tourism, which employs over 15 percent of our regional work force, is a major economic driver on the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland. The Federal support that our area receives, such as beach replenishment and dredging, is critical to the maintenance and growth this industry,” said Mike Pennington, Executive Director of the Tri-County Council for the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Ocean City is considered one of the top two destinations in the state, with Baltimore being the other. Visitation to Maryland increased by more than 30 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to Cardin.